Empowerment. Education. Enlightenment. Though they register as catchy buzzwords that are easy to bandy about, Emil Wilbekin, the founder of NATIVE SON, took them seriously when he started developing the Black Gay Leadership Forum three months ago. The idea for the forum had been on his mind for a while, but the COVID-19 shutdown forced the event to come together sooner than it might have otherwise. Aware of the devastating impact that forced social isolation might have on his Black gay community, Wilbekin started investigating what was needed to help people feel whole.
What he found was a continual need for Black gay men to organize and deal with the impacts of homophobia and racism. From there, Wilbekin got to work and started putting out invitations to thought leaders and executives from around the world. In a stroke of luck, everyone single person said yes, thanks in no small part, undoubtedly, to the lockdown. It is nearly impossible to imagine that these accomplished speakers could spare the time to gather from all over the world for a live event.
The resultant event on June 10 featured 24 Black gay male leaders at the top of their respective fields, with Valerie Jarrett as keynote speaker, jubilantly sharing their thoughts and creating fellowship with the private event’s 249 registrants. Acquiescing to requests to open up the event further, Wilbekin allowed the session on health in the Black gay community to stream live on Facebook, drawing in an additional 730 viewers.
The day kicked off with a rapturous acoustic performance from recording artist Andra Day, singing her hit song, “Rise Up,” a fitting song considering the #BlackLivesMatter protests happening since the beginning of the month all over the world. The event then moved into discussions about protests and change, with Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson laying out the idea that when it comes to movements, “Racial justice is strategy, not charity.” Former Obama White House advisor Valerie Jarrett emphasized the importance of voting, with the advice to do it “like your life depends on it, because frankly it does.”
But the conversation wasn’t all policy and politics. Recent Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown encouraged attendees to love big, so that “What we are handed is something we deserve.” Tech guru Husani Oakley spoke about the dangers and racism in facial recognition technology, noting not to “trust the maker of a system to tell you that the system is not racist.” And in between the sessions, music kept the energy vibrant, courtesy of DJ Kenneth Kyrell.
Early in the conference, during a forum on disparities in health for Black gay men, Greg Millett, M.P.H., vice president and director of public policy with amfAR, explained that social determinants of health have more to do with Black health outcomes than individual decisions, because systemic racism limits those individual choices. He expressed frustration at government officials who blame Black communities for suffering from higher COVID-19 infection rates, rather than offering resources or strategies to combat the problem. According to Millett, the resemblance to the HIV crisis in Black communities was uncanny in its ineptitude, and frighteningly predictable given the racist precedent.
In an uncanny coincidence, at the same time that this conference was happening, Ohio state Sen. Steve Huffman—who is also a medical doctor and vice chair of the state Senate Health Committee—was regurgitating the racist ideologies that Millett was speaking about. “Could it just be that African Americans—the colored population—do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear a mask? Or do not socially distance themselves? Could that just be maybe the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?” Huffman asked the director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health.
During his session on media representation, CNN anchor Don Lemon could have been responding to Huffman’s irresponsible insinuations directly when he declared the importance of calling “a racist a racist,” explaining that certain politicians will make up their own facts to discredit others or maintain the status quo. Continuing the conversation, journalist LZ Granderson called himself a “factivist” while stating that “It’s important we tell the truth, because if we don’t, someone else will tell it for us.”
After expressing anger at the many things he didn’t learn about Black people as a child—such as the fact that Black women were crucial to providing the mathematical solutions that put men in space (see the film Hidden Figures)—Granderson exhorted attendees to exercise discretion when watching the news, because the lines between opinions and facts are being blurred.
Speaking to his work against misinformation and addressing his on-air interrogation of President Trump’s obsession with President Obama, Lemon stated that “journalists have to stop pretending that this is objective,” calling it a false equivalency that he refused to indulge, particularly as a Black man commenting on the injustice of police brutality.
Returning the conference back to health care, Orlando Harris, Ph.D., M.P.H., RN, FNP, addressed the importance of eliminating power dynamics between patients and health care providers. Acknowledging that a doctor’s coat commands a sense of authority, Harris reminded attendees that a doctor works for them and could be fired for behaving unprofessionally or not respecting one’s wishes.
After speaking of a previous patient who was subjected to anal swabs during sexually transmitted infections testing, even after explaining that he was a strict top and not anally receptive, Harris advised audience members to advocate for themselves by testing their relationship out with a new doctor or specialist first before moving forward with a procedure. In his own experience, Harris revealed that he dresses down when visiting someone who might provide him with health care—and watches how they treat him. If the interaction is disrespectful, he turns the tables and gives them feedback before moving on. His final words of advice were to empower yourself by creating a checklist of questions before any doctor’s visit to ensure that no time is wasted and that your every concern is addressed.
From dismantling medical myths to building up one’s rights, the Black Gay Leadership Forum provided a seamless day of nurturing and fellowship. More than a crucial service, it was a lot of fun. Wilbekin shared that future forums—focusing on mentorship, archiving, and media—are already in the works.